Miranda Lambert is at her best best when she’s setting men on fire — or at least singing about it.
At the Pepsi Center on Monday, March 2, the country star's Denver fans raged to those songs. Women were headbanging, fist pumping, screaming along, word by word. The first round came with the second song of the night, “Kerosene,” and it started up again during “Gunpowder & Lead.” Through those anarchic numbers, Lambert rode the crowd like she had a crop in her hand, whipping us into a frenzy over the terrible men who ruin women’s lives: abusive dads, boyfriends, husbands, bosses — all the patriarchs that make life hell.
You could almost smell the smoke in the room, as husbands shrank in their seats, afraid of what SCUM-Manifesto fury Lambert might unleash in their mini-kingdoms. Because Lambert’s solution to terrible men isn’t to cancel them. When she blasts patriarchy, her sing-alongs involve bullets and bone-charring flames.
All that homicidal rage is easy to ignore if you prefer to view her as another small-town Texas girl made good. After all, Lambert writes smart, radio-friendly country hits, boasts about her good looks, and delivers catchy hooks that can get stuck on repeat in your head for years.
Her performance of her cheerier and less murderous numbers, like "Famous in a Small Town" or the more recent "It All Comes Out in the Wash," were charming enough at the Denver show, yet most lacked the ragged textures and twang that country deserves. Instead, these songs were backed by subtle, near-extraterrestrial sonic delays, squeals and bleeps from pedal-happy guitarists. Even the way her band used fiddle and banjo throughout the night sounded Auto-Tuned — too processed and bland to touch the soul.
Yet a bland Miranda Lambert is something that some in the press seem to crave. Take how Fox News has reported about her marriage to New York police officer Brendan McLoughlin over the past few days: "An insider close to the singer said Lambert appears 'lighter' and has let some of her walls down since marrying McLoughlin," Melissa Roberto wrote last week for the network, which published an entire piece on how marrying the cop made Lambert a happier person. That story was followed up over the weekend by another about how he's retiring from the NYPD to be her personal bodyguard.
Good for her, if she's happy. But writing about a master of the feminist murder ballad, Roberto comes off as a little too eager for Lambert to settle into domestic bliss, maybe become a little less dangerous...less criminal...less deadly.
That archetypal story — a wild woman tamed by her love for a man — is as corny, sexist and soulless as the worst of country radio. Lambert didn't have a word to say about her supposed newfound happiness to the Denver crowd; she performed her revenge songs as ferociously as ever, and nothing else connected quite like they did.
Sure, “Vice,” Lambert’s moving number about addiction, inspired some tearful mouthing of the words, but many in the crowd sat that one out. Same with her hit “The House That Built Me.” At times, she seemed more like a bar-room karaoke singer halfheartedly covering Miranda Lambert songs than the powerhouse diva herself. But then, on this current tour, she’s singing her same numbers night after night.
Her only fresh addition to the standard 23-song Wildcard-tour set list was the closer, “Pretty Bitchin’," a good-enough song from her 2019 album, but more of a fizzle than a finale to an arena show. That song replaced “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” a cover of the classic country tune that Travis Tritt turned into a hit around 2000. Most nights, she has sung that with her openers, the country rockers in LANCO, who put on a killer performance, and Cody Johnson, who apparently couldn’t make the rescheduled Denver date. (Lambert was too sick to play her February concert here.)
Johnson was replaced by Texas singer Casey Donahew, a nervous-looking man with a chiseled jaw who sang about waking up in jail only to use his one phone call to remind "the worst woman ever" to go to hell, the inner life of a bad guy (though he assured us he wasn't one) and cowboy authenticity. He carried on about loving George Strait and Chris LeDoux, but couldn’t quite muster their grit. Still, I would have liked to see him and LANCO join Lambert at some point, but there was no room for that kind of spontaneity in her rigid set list.
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Lambert didn't seem to break out of the box — nor did the crowd — until she did something akin to actual karaoke, as she and her band nailed an upbeat, electrified take on John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes Round,” and then a more traditional rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me.” All that situated her music more in the roots-rock tradition than radio country, and the production design was filled with psychedelic imagery — even those symmetrical labia-like abstractions that swirl on the screen at so many EDM and rap shows.
But Lambert's inspired covers and nods to classic rock couldn't keep up with the power — and promise — of her feminist anthems. One of the weirdest songs on Wildcard (which she didn't sing in Denver, unfortunately, but used as fodder for a T-shirt at her merch booth) is the murder ditty “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” about a woman pledging to kill the man who cheated on her friend. After pondering putting antifreeze in his Gatorade or arsenic in his lemonade or cutting his brakes, she decides to put a hit out on him instead: That way, she can keep getting waxed at the salon and enjoy eyelash extensions, none of which are offered behind bars.
“Way Too Pretty for Prison” is charming. It’s violent. It’s revolutionary. And it’s a little concerning: Why does Lambert croon so much about being pretty?
I'd rather see her drop that pose and cultivate ugliness. When Lambert does, she's on fire — or setting fires. In those moments, she's as much Joan Jett as Dolly Parton. But maybe one day she will go full-blown Wendy O. Williams, sawing guitars in half, shooting out the chandeliers above the crowd, blasting away the last vestiges of white male supremacy lurking in the country-music fan base and beyond. Then she'll watch that patriarchy bleed out on the floor, leading a rousing rendition of "It's a Great Day to Be Alive."